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NHL Salary Cap: How much should teams commit to their star players?

Answer: Probably a lot.

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Teams shouldn't be afraid to keep their star players in a salary cap league.

Getty Images Sport

The NHL salary cap may limit the amount of money teams can spend on players, but the teams that are willing -- and able -- to spend to the limits of the cap have a pretty massive advantage over the teams that don't (or can't). 

This should be common sense: The teams with the most talent usually win. The players with the most talent cost a lot of money. Because of this the teams that have superstar players are best served to keep them, even if it takes up a significant portion of their allotted cap space. 

Let's take a quick look at all 30 NHL teams during the 2013-14 season and how much cap space they allocated to their five highest paid players. Teams in bold are teams that qualified for the playoffs, and as you will see, almost all of them are in the top half of the league. Oher than the Montreal Canadiens all of the teams that made it to the second round are in the top-10.  

Team Top-5 Cap Hits Season Result
Minnesota Wild $33.7 Second Round
Carolina Hurricanes $33.2 Missed Playoffs
Pittsburgh Penguins $32.0 Second Round
San Jose Sharks $31.2 First Round
Washington Capitals $30.6 Missed Playoffs
Boston Bruins $30.1 Second Round
New York Rangers $30.0 Conference Final
Los Angeles Kings $30.0 Conference Final
Chicago Blackhawks $30.0 Conference Final
Anaheim Ducks $29.0 Second Round
Columbus Blue Jackets $28.0 First Round
Detroit Red Wings $28.0 First Round
Nashville Predators $27.2 Missed Playoffs
Tampa Bay Lightning $27.0 First Round
Dallas Stars $27.0 First Round
Winnipeg Jets $26.8 Missed Playoffs
Montreal Canadiens $26.7 Conference Final
Vancouver Canucks $26.7 Missed Playoffs
Toronto Maple Leafs $26.5 Missed Playoffs
Ottawa Senators $26.4 Missed Playoffs
St. Louis Blues $26.0 First Round
Phoenix Coyotes $25.5 Missed Playoffs
Philadelphia Flyers $25.0 First Round
Edmonton Oilers $25.0 Missed Playoffs
New Jersey Devils $24.5 Missed Playoffs
Buffalo Sabres $23.2 Missed Playoffs
Calgary Flames $23.2 Missed Playoffs
Colorado Avalanche $23.0 First Round
Florida Panthers $22.2 Missed Playoffs
New York Islanders $21.1 Missed Playoffs

 

Pretty telling table, isn't it? Three of the four conference finalists spent $30 million on just five players, while seven of the eight teams to make the second round spent at least $29 million.

This is a lot of money to not a lot of players.  

Of course, this doesn't mean a team should run out in July and sign the first average player they come across in free agency to a huge contract to bump up their payroll. It simply means that if you have a franchise player, or a couple of star players in the prime of their career, you shouldn't be afraid to keep them out of the unfounded fear that you won't have enough cap space to build a team around them.  

Just look at how much the past six Stanley Cup winners had allocated to just five players. 

Team (Year) Top-5 Cap Hits NHL Salary Cap Percentage
Detroit Red Wings (2007-08) $27.9 $50.3 55%
Pittsburgh Penguins (2008-09) $26.5 $56.7 48%
Chicago Blackhawks (2009-10) $25.5 $56.8 45%
Boston Bruins (2010-11) $25.2 $59.4 43%
Los Angeles Kings (2011-12) $27.3 $64.3 43%
Chicago Blackhawks (2012-13) $30.1 $60.0 50%

 

Three of this year's Conference Finalists (Chicago, Los Angeles and the New York Rangers) are at 47 percent.

Again: This is a lot of money. 

This is also where a teams ability to draft and develop its own players, as well as the ability of the front office and pro scouting staff to find undervalued and overlooked players in free agency or trades, becomes so important.  

Following their latest postseason disappointment, the focus in Pittsburgh seemed to be on the performance of some of their big money players (specifically Sidney Crosby and James Neal) as well as the issues they had filling out depth behind them because of how much money they were paying their core.

It's true that players like Crosby and Neal didn't come through offensively, and that's a problem. But the far bigger organizational problem (and this is a problem they had all season) is that when their star players didn't come through, they had absolutely nobody else that could pick up the slack.

This is where teams like Chicago and New York have succeeded. When their top guys fail to score (Jonathan Toews last year for Chicago, Patrick Sharp this year; Rick Nash, a player that just had one of the longest goal droughts in NHL playoff history, and Martin St. Louis until his recent offensive outburst this year) they have other guys that can step up and provide some offense.  

As the tables above show, every other team that goes deep into the playoffs and wins the Stanley Cup spends nearly the same amount on their core. The difference is those teams have done a better job finding players on entry level deals and didn't make some of the mistakes a team like Pittsburgh did in free agency (Rob Scuderi, Tanner Glass).  

I suspect all of that is a big reason why that team is currently searching for a new general manager and teams like Chicago and New York are still playing for the Stanley Cup. 

(All salary cap data via CapGeek)

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